Menzies Continued

Filed under: — Matthew Mosca @ 11:36 pm

It has been suggested to me that it may be a good time to begin a new discussion of the original Menzies topic, which was first posted in January and has now garnered 30 comments.  I will therefore begin one with a comment I posted yesterday.  (The original discussion, started by Jonathan Dresner, can be viewed here.)

As my comment is in response to one by Gunnar Thompson, PhD, I will post the beginning of his observations here, the full text may be viewed through the link above.  He writes:

“I have been studying early voyages to the New World for the past 30 years with a primary foucus on ancient maps for the past 15. When I first learned about the Chinese Admiral Zheng He nearly 17 years ago, I was struck by the enormous resources that were available to the leader of the Chinese navy, the enormous ships, the tens of thousands of mariners and laborers involved in the logistics behind the seven expeditions between China, the Middle East, and Africa. It seemed to me that anybody with those kinds of resources, especially when you consider the cooperation of the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Muslims (who arguably had the best astronomers in the world) should have been able to explore the Americas and to make a map. So, I was never burdened with the doctrinaire belief that “no Chinese Map of the World could possibly exist.”

Reading Dr. Thompson’s post, I can’t help but make the following observation. Far from being “burdened with the doctrinaire belief that ‘no Chinese Map of the World could possibly exist,’” I think I can speak for most of my colleagues in the field of Chinese history when I say that a). scholars have a full appreciation of the development of Chinese science and technology before the modern era, and b). historians of China would be, in principle, delighted to discover conclusive evidence that Ming voyages reached America (what scholar doesn’t take pride in the achievements of the place and time they study?). Furthermore, as press coverage and the sale of Mr. Menzies’s book has demonstrated, most journalists and their readers are by no means burdened with such knee-jerk ‘doctrinaire’ beliefs. However, I can only concur with the views of a Chinese scholar, quoted in one of the relevant H-Asia postings, that promoting an unsubstantiated claim will ultimately only harm the field, as well as popular views of past Chinese achievements. I am quite happy to admit that I hesitate to accept extreme hypotheses based on scant proof, but not that I am impelled by ‘dogma’ to dispute that American was discovered by someone other than Columbus. This strikes me as the standard straw-man argument of those pitching far-fetched ideas.

What concerns me about Dr. Thompson’s argument (and Menzies’ book) is the degree to which European evidence is advanced to support their claims. It would not be impossible, let me hasten to add, for knowledge from Ming China to reach Europe even before the arrival in China of the Portuguese, through the channel of indirect trade. What is patently odd, however, is that evidence for a Chinese voyage should circulate more widely in Europe than in China – no authoritative Chinese source about the Zheng He voyages supports such claims (despite several accounts of his voyages, some first-hand, surviving charts detailing his route, and coverage in numerous official and non-official compilations). The lack of Chinese evidence has led most serious scholars of Chinese history, within and without China, to dismiss these claims. (Parenthetically, the lack of corroborating Chinese evidence also seems like the best reason to dismiss the “Mo Map,” the appearance of which can only be labeled extremely convenient.) If we are to adopt Dr. Thompson’s course and pit en bloc dogmatic mainstream scholars against far-sighted theorists, let me strike a blow for the former and say that I find it curious that men who read no Chinese can see more clearly that Zheng He discovered America than masterful (and patriotic) Chinese scholars of Ming history who have every reason to support the notion, and only their scholarly conscience to restrain them.

I have not read Menzies’ book. I picked it up when it came out, intrigued. I flipped through the back matter, and came upon a line in which he adduced as evidence in support of his claims a similarity between “Chile” and the Chinese place-name Zhili 直隸 (given there, I believe, in Wade-Giles romanization as Chih-li). I put it down, and have not picked it up again. Similarly, I had sufficient immediate doubt about the content of Mr. Mo’s supposed 18th-century map (in addition to the more comprehensive arguments of other scholars) to prevent me from devoting days to its minute study. This is not to belittle the issue. The interest stimulated by the Menzies theory and its debate has been considerable, and it is the duty of historians to comment on the reliability of information passing through the public realm. I imagine that evolutionary biologists did not take pleasure in reading through the pronouncements of Kansas school board members. Some, however, took the trouble to rebut them out of a sense of their public duty as scholars. In the same vein I salute my colleagues in history who have the patience to spend weeks carefully rebutting claims from which they can derive no edification. The interest of this topic to the public makes it, and its debate, worthwhile.

At the same time, I feel constrained as a student of history to add that ultimately it matters little whether Zheng He reached America or not. From the perspective of Chinese history, scholars have long dealt with the conundrum that the Ming government initiated direct contact with India and the Arab world, places richer and more alluring than the Americas, and yet finally relinquished those contacts along with their maritime power. This is a real and important issue in Chinese history. Even if Zheng He indeed reached America and failed to follow this up, that would add little to the larger issue – already well noted by historians of China – of the puzzling relationship between the early Ming government and maritime power. When we compound this with the fact that Zheng He’s discovery of America, supposing it happened, had virtually no impact on his contemporaries or later residents of China, we can hardly describe Zheng He’s discovery of America as a crucial issue in Chinese history.

Nor world history. The real importance of Columbus’ voyages is that they were followed up. The settlement of America, the destruction of native American cultures, the boost the exploitation of American resources may have given to European powers and their colonial projects, the impact of American silver on world currency markets, and the role of North and South America in later world history, these are some of the reasons the early European voyages of discovery are of great historical importance. Columbus’ voyage is significant not as a single feat, but as an early link in a chain of events. The debate over whether Zheng He reached America is a fascinating subject, and I follow the issue closely, but I don’t think it can be ranked among the major issues of Chinese or world history.

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